Hula Girl

Plumeria flower1983. Spring. The alley behind The Blue Diamond reeked of wet garbage, beery napkins, and lime wedges long rancid in the humid Michigan air. Dickie’s freshly waxed new Thunderbird, a car he’d bought with a wad of cash slapped on some salesman’s ink blotter, waited, air-conditioning running, tires in pools of piss. As for Dickie, he struck at the tavern door with his open palm. Four minutes passed according to his Swiss timepiece. He grew irritated. Impatient. Smoothed the bushy, silver caterpillars over his eyes with a wet thumb. Adjusted his waistband. Thursday was payday and he was there to collect.

In their fourth-floor rented office in the Olde part of town, Dina counted the week’s receipts, tallying how much they’d be short this time. Dickie insisted she keep her nails extra long and painted and she wouldn’t mind, if they didn’t get in the way so much like when she was pasting up the ads he sold or mixing Mave’s formula. Dickie always said that a well-kept lady had well-manicured hands. Besides she didn’t want to embarrass him if she had to make an emergency run to the store in this neighborhood. Not that they could afford it.

The door opened into the alley. The hairy arm holding it open belonged to Hopeton who, as was whispered among his customers, suffered a common glandular problem which left him a fatter man than most. He absently focused his lazy eye on Dickie’s polished wingtips before turning back inside. A musky, thick scent, sweat mingled with fried – was it cheese? – crawled up Dickie’s nose as he followed. People like that, he thought, deserved to spend their days in a hole like this.

“How’s business down here in the trenches, old man?” Dickie swaggered into the padded leatherette darkness leaving the door open behind him. For the air.

“Dick,” Hopeton spoke. The name hung in the air as they walked, gathering weight, drifting to the floor.

“It’s Thursday again,” Dickie said, noting the pickled barflies holding their perches at ten in the morning. He stepped over to the spindly newspaper rack propped by the bar. Fingered through the few splayed copies of Nightlife left.

Hopeton wedged behind the thick wooden slab that served up gimlets and tequila poppers nearly twenty-four hours. Light from the alley caught the keloid gash cutting horizontally across the folds of his throat. He tended to the liquor bottles, shifting and polishing, ignoring Dickie who wiped a stool with a red paper bar napkin then took a seat.

“I hear things are picking up. On this side of town, I mean.” Dickie broke the silence. “With the new senior centre opening over on Woodward Ave and all.”

Hopeton pulled a rag from his belt to wipe down the greasy register. Dickie watched, disgusted by how a man can spend his life spreading and rearranging filth. Neither spoke.

“I should point out, the longer I stay, the more shittalk you’ll have listen to. I can make conversation for hours. We can talk about the weather. Fuck of a miserable day out there. Humid like that crack between your wife’s big ol’ thighs.” He waited for a reaction. None. He shrugged, “Or you can just pay me. Quickest way to get rid of a debt collector, you know.”

Contempt and impatience colored the big man’s features. Dickie waited before starting again. He sighed, examining his cuticles. “I had an aunt once who liked Manhattans. You know how to make a Manhattan there Hopeton?”

Hopeton didn’t look at the small, pointy man teetering on the edge of his barstool, trying to keep his suit from touching any surface but the red square under his skinny, white ass. He pressed a button on the cash register. The drawer slid open with a ching. He pulled stacks from three of the slots inside, bunched the cash together with a sticky rubber band, and pitched it down the bar, past two old drunkards on their seconds of the day. Dickie reached out, delicately, to collect.

Sixty-two was too old for hustling debts, the 8-track in Dickie’s head played. Joints like The Blue Diamond ought to be happy Dickie Gutteridge set foot on their rotting carpet. Respectable businessmen ran respectable businesses where clients paid. Peddling ads and chasing a few hundred dollars was for hustlers. The cash slid easily into his jacket pocket.

Hopeton heaved the cash drawer closed and returned to wiping, finished with the transaction and with the slumming geriatric. “Getcha another Phil?” he said to the withered clutch of brown heaped on a stool. Hopeton poured liquid amber into a tall glass. He fished a book of matches from the mug on the bar and lit one from his pack of Old Port Tipped before sliding the glass across the bar.

Dickie patted his pockets, searching for something. “Seeing how the last two weeks shook out,” Dickie searched for delicate phrasing, “in terms of settling your accounts in arrears – .” Silence congealed as he found his cigarette case and tucked one between dry lips. He continued, “its good to see you’ll be back on a regular payment plan real soon.” He continued patting for his lighter. Hopeton wiped around the mug of matches, sweet smoke curling to the ceiling. “Yes sir,” Dickie’s palms were moist as he lit up. “Tell you what. If you want, I can increase the size of your ad to double. That’ll bring ’em in. Shouldn’t be a problem.” He swatted at the smoke commingling between them.

“Seems to me that a guy, a guy without no posse – you – sportin’ new Italian loafers on his chickeny legs and a fancy diamond watch like dat ‘ ought not to be concerned with shakin’ down people regular. Not in these parts no how.” The voice spat from between the cracked, rouged lips of a woman tucked into the darkness of one of the booths on wall across from the bar. Bile came to Dickie’s throat when he saw she was missing more than a few of her teeth. Sharply aware of the open door and the bright air a few steps beyond, Dickie froze. Behind the booze, reflected in the mirror, he saw Hopeton’s shotgun clamped under the counter, lying in wait above the sink of brown liquid swimming with cigarillo butts into which Hopeton dipped his rag and rubbed the countertop. Sweat trickled inside Dickie’s starched shirt.

“Next week. Make that two. I’ll see you in two weeks.” It was all Dickie could do to keep from running to his car, grunts of laughter chasing behind.

With her bare hand, Dina removed a thin layer of dust from the white ledge beneath the office window. It collected so fast, she mused, examining the grey fuzz on her palm. She found herself, again, making a mental list of the benefits of running the paper out of their apartment. If her husband didn’t insist upon keeping the office, she might find time for all sorts of things. What those things were, she couldn’t think. None of it mattered because Dickie said a good address was worth double its price. It’s only money, honey, he says. You can’t put a sale tag on reputation. At forty years her husband’s junior, Dina trusted that he, indeed, knew best. She had only waited tables before Dickie came along, waving hundred dollar bills. If it weren’t for him, she’d still be serving onion rings, topless. Her mother told all her friends that, by some miracle, her ungrateful tramp of a daughter had landed a rich man with a good head for business.

She’d have to tap their savings to make rent again. They were running out of friends who would float them loans. Dickie always lost a little here, a little there, never paying anyone back in full. He was careless that way. Dina stuffed away cash for Mave every time he brought money in. If she died from boredom pasting up photos of new wave bands and hair metal acts, she would happily do so as long as she died doing everything possible to make sure little Mave would never be pinched on the ass by some sweaty suit looking for a good time. It made her nervous that at two, Mave was more at home sleeping in an open file drawer than she was in her own crib. Sweet Mave.

If Dickie found out about the stash, Dina knew he’d spend every nickel on new suits, rounds for “all my friends”, and airplane tickets. A successful man sees the world, he says. One day, when there would be enough money left over after the bills and after Mave finished college, maybe Dina would travel too. She picked up the pace of her counting as Dickie was due back with the week’s receipts and lunch from Kentucky Fried Chicken. She wanted to be finished and ready for him.

Dickie flicked the automatic locks in the Thunderbird before putting it into gear and gunning it out of the alley to The Blue Diamond. Only when he passed Grant Avenue and crossed the overpass did he ease his foot off the gas. Hopeton had always been a righteous fuck, he thought. With high ideas. Thinking he was better than his station in life. And that shrew. Grinding herself deeper into her perpetual decrepitude, offering opinions as if they mattered. Dickie made a vow to himself not to cruise his deadbeat collections without backup ever again. He would pay some tough, one of the ex-cons who hung out at the boxing gym, to follow him around. It was an added bonus that a personal maul would only serve to make him appear more important. Dickie Gutteridge couldn’t lose. He may have to deal with scum, he thought, but he certainly didn’t have to join them.

He steered the automobile under Keel Grover Bridge, by the cardboard homeless village, and coasted to a stop. Checked that the windows were up. Shifted into Park. Dickie exhaled, his hands gripping ten and two, their dark veins bulging through transparent, mottled skin. He looked around before drawing the cash from his coat pocket. The stack slid pleasantly across his fingertips, weighted his hand with its thickness. Perhaps Hopeton had a moment of integrity and paid not only the week in full but covered the last two as well. Perhaps, but unlikely. Dickie leafed through the stack, counting the twenty-dollar bills. Forty. Sixty. Sixty-one. Two. The rest was bulky with ones. In total, Hopeton had managed to squeak by with one week of advertising paid in full. Dickie stuffed two twenties under the dashboard and slipped the rest in the payments folder. Dina wouldn’t know if Hopeton shorted them thirty or forty dollars. It wouldn’t matter.

She checked her work again. The paper was shrinking every month with fewer and fewer nightclubs paying for fewer ads. She could feel the shift. Clubs closing. Taverns replacing live entertainment with disc jockeys and jukeboxes. If they didn’t start doing something differently, Mave’s fund was going to be spent keeping them afloat.

Dina stood at the office window watching the never-ending river of Mercedes and Cadillacs drive by; one or two occasionally parking to exhale fine, coiffed women into the shops below. She rehearsed how she would bring up the subject with Dickie one more time. It wasn’t that he didn’t listen to her ideas. Dickie just had trouble believing that anyone else knew best. She pictured how he’d blow through the door, waving the money he’d collected. High on the smell of it, he’d pick her up, dance with her and the cash. On particularly good days, he’d enter her right there on the office floor. On days like these, when she’d want to discuss the unpleasant, he’d reassure her she was worrying too much, whatever was the matter was just temporary, and to let Dickie take care of everything. He’d pour himself a J&B and reminisce about the days when couples on the make and lonely guys trolling for a pick-up would spend the wee hours listening to live music and sipping too many watered-down cocktails. After a while, he’d convince Dina and himself that it was human nature to be out in the evenings, enjoying what the world had to offer. They have nothing to worry about, he’d say. If the ghetto clubs got rid of their piano players, nightclub singers, and rock and roll bands then Nightlife, the rag, he’d call it, would just have to sell ads to more strip joints. Those people still had plenty of good money to spend and no one ever got tired of looking at naked broads.

1997. Autumn. Smokestacks and boxcars. The oppressive industrial overtones of the East Side matched the weight pressing on his greyed chest. Dickie lay wedged under the front bumper of his Lincoln Town Car. From his vantage point, the clouds were clean puffs of white, streaked occasionally by sooty smoke from the refinery, the cannery, or the smelters. They’d left him there, pinned under his own bumper. Little point in really roughing up a nearly eighty-year old white man. He was just as likely to keel over the next day from a stroke as he was from overly zealous debt collection. If he’d quit hanging around their clubs and their dancers, running up tabs he’d never pay, it wouldn’t come to this.

Dickie knew Dina wouldn’t wonder where he was if he didn’t come home, not for two days at least. It had become his habit to wander, to loiter until long past sunrise when he would order his java and eggs on dry toast and remember he should go home. Under his bumper, Dickie drifted in and out of drunken sleep. No one passed. Day turned to dusk before he began the slow process of extracting himself from between the blackened metal and the gravel lot. When he’d exhaled and pushed against the car one last time, his body finally freed itself. Brushing himself off, his mind drifted to the new suit he’d have to buy to replace the torn, oil and blood-stained tweed. The scumbags had ruined a suit worth more money than they’d ever see in one place. First he’d drive himself home where Dina would dig the gravel from the loose skin of his back, doctor the scrapes on his face, and tend to his swollen wrist. Dickie knew his wife wouldn’t ask questions. Many times he’d returned to their dusty apartment reeking of whisky, cigarette smoke, and Chloe. She’d continue reading her paperback or folding the laundry while he fell into bed. As he slid onto the Lincoln’s leather bench, depressed the brake, turned the key, Dickie thought that except for a few minor incidents brought about by the ignorance of the uneducated with whom he was forced to do business, he was a lucky man. He steered the brown sedan onto the stretch of highway that would lead home.

Dina stuffed the “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” banner into a Hefty bag. That was the last of it: the streamers, the balloons, leftover cake. Mave would be spending the day with her best friend Julie’s family. They’d offered to take her out on their boat for her sixteenth birthday. Mave had never been on a boat before. Neither had Dina. As she tied the yellow plastic handles of the bag into a knot, Dina thought, “today’s the day”. She’d had a bag packed for three years. All she’d have to do would be to pack Mave’s. She’d saved enough to keep them nicely for more than a few months. Her cousin in Boston had offered a spare room for as long as they needed. They would be fine. But Mave would have to be pulled out of school. Leave her friends. Drop skating and piano lessons. She looped the plastic strips over each other again. “No,” she corrected herself, “not now.”

She dropped the trash bag outside the front door and turned to survey the apartment. Whenever Dickie chose to come home, there’d be no reminder that he’d missed his daughter’s Sweet Sixteen. She wondered if she’d tell him right away or wait to see whether he’d remember. The last time Dickie brought Mave a present, it was a pen he’d bought at the airport gift shop in Oahu: a tiny hula girl that got naked when you flipped her upside down. He thought she’d get a laugh out of it. Why not? He did. Besides, it went with the coconut shell bra he’d brought back from Fiji the year before when, apparently, he’d noticed his twelve-year old was growing breasts.

He was probably between the sheets of some whore. Maybe the same one she’d found in her own bed; didn’t even have the decency to cover up when her john’s wife walked in. That was her own fault, Dina remembered. He’d found Dina’s stash in the freezer. She’d gotten a safety deposit box since then.

Dina had watched herself age in that dingy four-room walk-up. Now strangers mistake her for her husband’s daughter, not granddaughter. Two more years, twenty-four months give or take, and Mave would be off to college. She’d made sure that there was enough cash for Mave to move far away, to start her life on her own. To be whoever she wanted to be. Dina daydreamed, saw herself still a young woman, still attractive. “I’ll start over,” she thought, “somewhere clean. Without newspapers and bars and debts to collect. Not today, but soon.”

The door opened and Dickie walked in, beaming.

“Hula Girl”, July 2003